ARC Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Spinning SilverSpinning Silver by Naomi Novik
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Release date: July 10, 2018

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

Warnings: parental abuse, physical abuse, mentions of rape, antisemitism

I had imagined Spinning Silver to be a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, but it was way more than that. For starters, the ‘retelling’ is only a subset of this lush and expansive story that is told through 6 perspectives, with 3 of them being the main – Miryem, Irina and Wanda – and the other 3 being secondary – Wanda’s youngest brother, Irina’s nanny and Irina’s husband, the tsar. (I would have loved a POV of the Staryk King, too, but I think most of the driving force in his part of the story is his mysteriousness) The tale derives from more than Rumpelstiltskin; there are hints of Hades-Persephone, Baba Yaga, and other folklore, plus some tropes common to fantasies that are stripped of their problematic origins and given new context in this story. Shortly, the plot goes like this – Miryem, who becomes a successful moneylender, boasted of as being able to turn silver into gold catches the notice of the Staryk king (who is like winter personified) and is challenged three tasks to become his Queen. But during her machinations, her story intersects with that of Irina, a duke’s daughter with Staryk ancestry, and who starts as a pawn but ultimately is the Queen on the board. Wanda is Miryem’s servant and is mostly carried along by the story but she also shows initiative at times.

What I loved best about this book is while there are 3 storylines playing out, it keeps them looped with each other at regular intervals, but also not so much as to have everything happen coincidentally. There are instances where you can only explain things away by shrugging and saying, “it’s magic”, but for the most part the plot is a slowly weaving tapestry that grows into a beautiful story that encompasses a varied cast of characters. There is Miryem, and the way her childhood makes her seem cold-hearted, but you can see her tenderness shine through when it came to Wanda and her family. Wanda and her siblings, poor and abused, but always wary of never taking more than they are due and still optimistic. Irina, who turns every unfortunate situation in her favor, sometimes by luck and her bloodline, but mostly by her cunning and political intelligence. Then come the ‘husbands’ – the Staryk king is cold and dismissive of Miryem, but also sees the value in her magic and eventually humbled by it, while the tsar who is burdened by a demon and has only learned to despise people around him finding someone to love him – both of them were terrible characters in the beginning but somehow Novik won me over and let me believe that they deserved the ending that they get.

As for diversity, the novel always goes to make sure to present Miryem’s Jewish heritage – even under capture, she is particular about keeping Sabbath and bargains her way into doing it, there is a Jewish quarter and mention of them having a secret tunnel built to escape Crusades, the pervasive antisemitism that they face. There are mentions of queer characters (who is forced to marry unfortunately), or races other than white (the tsar is of Tatar heritage). Also, I’m pretty sure the tsar was aroace-coded, even if it is never explicitly mentioned that he is. Other than that, I had thought there might be something between Miryem and Wanda but that may have been wishful thinking and me seeing tropes.

Miryem, our protagonist (I think she is the main character) ,celebrates her culture in the book, even if sometimes she felt alienated by her family for her choices (I do love her grandfather for supporting and encouraging her, though). And while she is the typical ‘girl who steps into a man’s shoes’ trope, she doesn’t denounce her femininity for it. The women of the book, while lacking in power as much as the men, still carry forth the story on sheer pluck, cunning and smarts. Wanda risking her father’s wrath for her brothers, for her own autonomy, and later on finding family in Miryem’s was such a good plot development. Irina, for her part, humanizes even a demon-possessed tsar, and makes hard choices and takes blood on her own hands for the protection of a kingdom and a crown she never even yearned for. Another wonderful thing is that the reason the heroines of the book do anything is for love, but it is not romantic love – sure, there are hints of romance, but they are almost an afterthought – and instead it was for love of family, or their people.

Novik’s writing skills were already evident in Uprooted, and this one is even better. I was awed by how immersed I was in the story – even though it is over 450 pages, there was never a time when I was like ‘this is taking too long’. The plot unfolded in its own way and while the logic of the magic wasn’t always clear, it still kept you going till the ending. For that part, I should mention that I still didn’t properly get the whole silver-gold winter-summer thing, but I was still convinced enough to be satisfied by how it was wrapped up. The atmosphere was partly foreboding, but also had hints of humor or tenderness – there was a scene that calls upon the ‘there is only one bed’ trope but turns it sideways and then still delivers a punch on the next page, and that to me was a great example of how the author has subtly blended myriad emotions into a single scene.

Overall, this book was a treat for those who love to see their favorite fairytales, but without the problematic lenses under which they were written, and who yearn for some fresh takes on folklore.

Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Macmillan, via Netgalley.

View all my reviews

Buy links

Amazon | The Book Depository | Wordery

5 thoughts on “ARC Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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